those bad Excel manipulations that led to disasters

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those bad Excel manipulations that led to disasters


The United Kingdom has for a time underestimated the number of positive cases of Covid-19 due to the technical limitations of Excel, and its ceiling set at nearly one million lines. Other blunders have in the past had sometimes dramatic consequences.


Poor handling of Excel has weighed on the tally of Covid-19 cases in the UK.


© Excel
Poor handling of Excel has weighed on the tally of Covid-19 cases in the UK.


Keeping the national contamination register in Excel is a very perilous gamble. Those responsible for British health authorities have underestimated nearly 16,000 cases the number of contaminations to Covid-19 in the country. The problem, since resolved, has prevented contact cases of these same individuals tested positive, or nearly 50,000 people. It was due to a simple ignorance of an old version of Excel 2003 and its technical limitations.

As revered as it is hated, Microsoft’s spreadsheet software Excel is the world’s best-known database software. Indispensable for many, it involves a certain know-how and, for the most seasoned, extremely complex manipulations. Certain childish mistakes which could easily have been avoided have nevertheless in the past had monumental consequences. Back on several emblematic blunders.

Ghost cells at Barclay’s

Hiding a cell in Excel is not the same as making it disappear completely. Ignorance of this technical detail will have cost Barclays dearly. Through a reformatting error, the British bank booked 179 excess Lehman Brothers asset purchase contracts.

These were entered in hidden lines, and marked with an “n” to signify that they should not be part of the final agreement, reported in 2008 the financial media Finextra. The error resulted in Barclays Capital’s law firm filing a petition with a New York court to have unwanted contracts excluded from the final deal. The final sum disbursed by Barclays to bury this mishandling was not disclosed.

British intelligence misled

MI5, a prestigious British intelligence service, also paid the price for an Excel error. In 2010, the agency improperly collected data on the holders of 134 telephone numbers. A formatting error, again, had led to the modification of their last three digits by “000”.

“The subscriber data collected had no connection and was in no way relevant to investigations or operations undertaken by the security service”, wrote Sir Paul Kennedy, then communications commissioner, in his 2010 annual report. The cause of the incident has not been fully elucidated.

Tickets for the Olympic Games sold at a loss

One of the biggest Excel-related mistakes in recent years, British once again, was made ahead of the London Olympics. It led to the sale of 10,000 excess entry tickets, for a very simple reason: one of the employees in charge of the ticket office had entered “20,000” instead of “10,000” in the box devoted to the number of tickets. entrance tickets to attend synchronized swimming events, reported BBC News in 2012.

In compensation, the 3,000 customers who bought these fictitious tickets were upgraded and invited to participate in more popular, in fact more expensive events. A loss-making operation for the organizers.

A plus for a minus

The so-called “Magellan” case, named after an investment fund managed by the American company Fidelity Investments, is still a landmark in Excel error. In 1995, the New York Times relates a mistake committed by one of the company’s accountants: by forgetting to enter a “-” sign at the beginning of a cell, the latter records a gain of more than one billion dollars, instead of the register as a loss.

The blunder, at 1.3 billion dollars, is passed on to the shareholders, who are deprived of part of their end-of-year payments, set at 4.32 dollars per share. Discovering this unfortunate confusion, then chief executive of Fidelity Investments, J. Gary Burkhead, made a scathing observation: “Some people have asked us how, in the age of technology, such a mistake could have happened. be committed “, reported the press agency AP News. The name of the accused accountant has not been rumored.

False cells and genetics

Excel’s propensity to automatically transform instructions into dates has wreaked havoc in the scientific community. Twenty-seven names of human genes had to be changed by the committee of dedicated researchers, the Human Gene Nomenclature Committee, after having been misunderstood several times by the spreadsheet, explained this year the American site The Verge.

Concretely, the names of the SEPT1 and MARCH1 genes were systematically transformed into dates, as soon as they had been entered in an Excel spreadsheet. They now operate under new names: SEPTIN1 and MARCHF1.

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